Springtime in the desert brings beautiful weather and cactus blooms. Springtime is also when the rattlesnakes come out from hibernation.

Ninety percent of venomous snakebites occur between April and October. Crotalus atrox, the Western Diamondback rattlesnake, is usually responsible for bites in Tucson. It is a heavy-bodied snake with a triangular-shaped head and black and white stripes on its tail just above the rattle. 

The following article will help you to understand snakebites, the treatments for bites, what to do if your pet is bitten, and how to help your pet avoid being bitten.

The severity of snakebites varies widely and depends on the circumstances of the bite, the size and age of the snake, how recently the snake used its venom, the location of the bite, and the susceptibility of the individual bitten. The components of snake venom are complex and vary amongst the species of snakes. 

In general, death to the rattlesnake’s prey is caused by decreased blood pressure and hemorrhage. The venom also contains enzymes that break down body tissues to aid in digestion of the prey.  

The goals of snakebite treatment are to control pain and infection, maintain blood pressure, and counteract the effects of the venom. These are accomplished with intravenous fluids, pain medications, antibiotics and antivenin. Antivenin reverses enzymes in the venom that cause the hemorrhage and tissue destruction.  It is a lifesaving treatment in some pets. In other pets, it minimizes the pain and swelling in the area of the bite, and can prevent sloughing of tissue.

The most important thing for pet owners to do if they suspect their pet has been bitten by a snake is to get the pet to a veterinarian as soon as possible. Keep the pet calm, keep the bite wound below the heart if possible, and avoid touching the bite area, as it will be painful.

There are no home remedies that have been shown to be effective against rattlesnake bites. A veterinarian can help determine if a snakebite has occurred, the severity of the bite, and the treatments that are needed. Do not attempt to kill the snake and bring it to the veterinary hospital, but it may help to take a picture if possible.

Ideally, snakebites should be avoided altogether. There are some simple steps to take to help avoid a snake encounter. One is to simply check for snakes before letting pets out into the yard. It is also wise to take a flashlight with you when walking your pet in the evening, and keep watch for snakes.

Try to make your yard unappealing to rattlesnakes by trimming foliage up high and away from the fence, and removing anything that would make a good hiding place for a snake. Do not feed birds as the seeds attract rodents, which are food for snakes. Smile if you see a king snake as they kill and eat rattlesnakes. Also consider rattlesnake avoidance training for your dog. Your veterinarian can give you a referral for this service.

Erin K. O’Donnell, DVM, is the medical director/owner of Northwest Pet Clinic, 252 W. Ina Road in Northwest Tucson. She can be reached by calling 742-4148.

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Check out a group called Working with Wildlife at www.workingwithwildlifeusa.com. They provide information on snakes found in the USA, what these animals do when confronted by humans and things you can do to reduce the chance of being bitten by one. It is a good site to read if snakes are a problem in your area.

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